Every tradition needs an update now and then. Even “The Nutcracker,” every dance fan’s first ballet.
First performed in 1892, Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece follows young Clara (or Masha or Marie) into a holiday dreamscape of dancing snowflakes, flowers and fairies, accompanied by the Nutcracker — a toy soldier come to life as a dashing prince.
The ballet’s current “It” choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, recently transported the story to Chicago World’s Fair for the Joffrey Ballet — period-appropriate but 100 percent American. And Jennifer Weber’s “Hip Hop Nutcracker,” which stopped in Phoenix last month, time-travels from current-day New York all the way back to the ’80s for a lesson on the roots of breakdancing.
Now comes “A Cirque Nutcracker,” with the Phoenix Symphony hosting Los Angeles’ Troupe Vertigo for a world-premiere production at the Mesa Arts Center this month.
“Our works are very much about putting a theatrical sensibility on top of circus to make the extraordinary somehow touchable,” says company co-founder Aloysia Gavre. She was an aerial performer with San Francisco’s pioneering Pickle Family Circus in the ’90s before moving on to the Cirque du Soleil and stages around the world.
“So much of circus feels so foreign to the public. It’s oohs and aahs and freak show, and we wanted to have a storyline that would thread its way through and make the circus artists feel human, and not like superheroes.”
Troupe Vertigo has explored everything from California’s territorial history to film noir (in “Nighthawks,” inspired by the novels of Raymond Chandler and the paintings of Edward Hopper). Gavre says its take on “The Nutcracker” has a contemporary feel, with a stark opening in blacks and whites and grays that blossoms into a psychedelic playground in the second act.
It features a small cast of 10 aerialists, acrobats and jugglers — and, yes, dancers. The Sugar Plum Fairy dances on a trapeze, and the battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King features a giant rodent on stilts, with the toy soldiers assisted by a contortionist archer firing arrows using, shall we say, less than conventional form.
“That scene especially is full of acrobatics and tension,” Gavre says.
“Circus people generally have some random skills that maybe haven’t found a place in their life, and this show has found a place for all those things.”